It was the worst of times. Visitor numbers had been shocking, while down the road the bloody Newbury Museum opening again after a year’s lottery-funded revamp only made it worse. After all, who wouldn’t choose to visit their beautifully renovated space, stuffed with relics of local life and weapons and artefacts from nearby Civil War battles? At least that’s what Johnson, my oldest, and I thought trusted friend told me as I sat at the entry counter at my own museum. To be honest, I wasn’t in the best of moods. I was fuming.
‘Is that all you’ve come here to say?’ I said.
‘Well, it stands to reason, dun it,’ said Johnson, ‘they have a 17th century crossbow as you walk in, and you’ve got…’
‘…Yes, alright; the sign from Pets City before they rebranded it Pets at Home. Your point is?’
‘My point is, that you call this…’ he looked around, ‘junkyard the Newbury History Museum – yet I’ve got corns older than most of the exhibits here.’
‘You take that back,’ I countered, aggrieved at his disloyalty. ‘There’s the Roman Collection.’
‘You mean that shoebox containing postcards from Bath and those two tiles of mosaic that we pinched from the school trip to Fishbourne Palace in 1973?’
‘…and Geology Corner,’ I insisted.
‘Oh yes, a few odd-shaped stones you found on Wash Common and a papier mache volcano you made yourself.’
‘A volcano that erupts!’ I said, defending my honest if cack-handed craftwork.
‘Sitting under a table and squeezing a Fairy Liquid bottle containing finely chopped strawberry jelly through the vent of a chewed up paper volcano, hardly makes it Krakatoa. And that pile of ash in the jar – no one believes it came from Eyjafjallajökull, I reckon it’s from your fireplace.’
…‘It did not!’ I said affronted, thinking how pleased my old cat, Nutrients, would have been if he’d known what an important exhibit he was to become post mortem.
‘Look, I’m not being mean, just trying to help a friend know that maybe the time has come to move on.
When I didn’t answer, he asked me how many visitors I’d had that day. I couldn’t lie; he’d been the only one. And he didn’t even pay, as he came round every day for a chat and to tell me that I was wasting my time.
I just needed some luck.
Nothing came but bills and I had no choice but sell off even more of my best attractions.
December is always a bad month for museums. Frankly October and November had fared little better. My Halloween Chamber of Horrors failed to draw in the crowds, despite my display of pumpkins that I’d nabbed in the moonlight from the local allotments, along with bones saved from previous Chinese spare rib takeaways and from allowing the rats I normally trapped in the yard have the run of the exhibits.
I thought that using the blown down fence as a simulated bonfire for my Guy Fawkes display was a masterstroke, and could have cuffed the kid who pointed out that the head of the guy was one of the pumpkins wearing the same Hitler mask as my summer season Freddy Mercury tribute.
I looked past the conkers that made up my Amazing Autumn display and out of the window of my empty museum. People were busying themselves with Christmas shopping, all except those who were queuing to meet Santa in the Newbury Museum at the end of the High Street, no doubt clutching cash in their mittens to spend in the gift shop after. Bastards, I thought, and went to have my beans on toast, saving the can to wash out for my Metals in Action exposition.
Luck? What I needed, was a miracle.
I awoke on Christmas Eve to the hooting of cars and snarling of drivers. I lay there wondering what the hold-up could be, when there was a banging at the door. I put on my slippers and staggered down to open it.
‘Sign ’ere, Mate,’ said the man with the brown cap and indecipherable accent.
I gave my name and signed his paper, still not quite awake.
‘I’ll leave it ‘ere,’ he said and fled to the enormous transporter blocking the road outside the museum. He pulled away to more hoots and shouts leaving behind a large wooden crate. Did I say large? I meant enormous.
A policeman appeared.
‘Is this crate your crate, Sir?’
‘No, Officer,’ I protested.
‘The label says it’s for the History Museum. You are the owner of said museum?’
‘Well, yes, I am.’
‘In that case Sir, you have 20 minutes to remove your package from the Queens highway, otherwise I will be compelled to arrest you for obstructing her majesty’s thoroughfares and disturbing the peace.’
I had no idea what was in the crate, or why it was here, but maybe this was the stroke of good fortune I needed…
I took a crow bar from my Great Tools of the 20th Century exhibit and broke open the case. It was full of shredded paper. I pulled out several handfuls to expose what looked for all the world like an enormous bone. I removed more of the packaging and found bone after bone, which I carried into the museum.
The policeman came back after his 20 minutes and could see I was doing my best, and gave me a hand. A couple of hours later we were done and he was on his way. I sat down exhausted and looked at the massive pile of bones. What on earth were they? And why had they been sent to me? I rummaged through the pieces of crate and found the delivery note:
My luck had changed at last!
OK, I presume the bones were intended to join the other dinosaurs in the iconic Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum in London, but if they had found their way here. then here they could jolly well stay.
I took the left over bones from last nights KFC and posted them to Professor Kapowski. Being. I figured, descendants of pterodactyls. Somehow it only seemed fair, if a little spiteful. Then I set about the assembling my dinosaur.
All Christmas day I worked, connecting vertebrae 132 to vertebrae 133 etc until finally, the great skeleton towered before me with just the skull to put in place. I stepped back and admired my handiwork. There stood the 4-legged beast, its enormous tail curled round to fit the room, its impressive and equally long neck standing high.
I moved the ladder against its neck and struggled up clasping the 3 foot long skull. I went to locate it to bone 256; the Cervical Vertebrae, but there was a problem. It didn’t fit. I couldn’t believe it, the ceiling was about 5 inches too low. No matter how hard I tried to wiggle the neck down a little to take the skull, it wouldn’t move without crashing down and the bones fit together so perfectly that missing any out brought the same disastrous result.
After hours of unsuccessful tinkering, I got so cross with the damn thing I shouted, ‘sod it,’ and threw the bloody skull into the murky Kennet & Avon canal behind the museum. I went to bed, cursing my luck.
I awoke on Boxing Day with a brilliant idea and sure enough, opened my Dinosaur Slide exhibit to the public. At 50p a go, kids could climb up the ladder then slide down the long neck, body and the sweeping curl of the tail. Sure, not many had a second go because it was pretty bumpy, but word got around and business boomed for several hours. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the kids that heard, but the council too.
The Health & Safety Officer arrived just as one of the kids fell off the sacrum of the great sauropod. As he stuck the ‘museum closed’ sign in the window, there was an almighty crash and the sound of bubbles from behind the building. We ran round to see a narrow boat listing heavily in the canal.
‘I’ve struck something – hard,’ said the owner of the Kintbury Kanute, ‘and I’m taking in water – fast. Man the bilges, and save our souls!’
‘No panicking now,’ said the Health and Safety Officer, highly trained in disaster-aversion, snapping into action. ‘The water may look putrid, but it’s only two-point-five to three feet deep. Just don’t drink any. The main risk to a safe outcome is from swans, and these kids will keep them away by throwing stones at them, should they choose to attack. They certainly looked aggressive. But then swans always do.
The back of the museum appeared on Breakfast News the next day. It was a pity we’d been closed down; it would have been good for business. The object the narrow boat struck was retrieved by a dredger and turned out not to be a shopping trolley as expected, but the fossilised head of some kind of dinosaur. I said nothing, I wasn’t sure my museum indemnity insurance covered that sort of thing.
Later, the national TV crews arrived and made a celebrity of that boat-wrecked swab and brought in David Attenborough to narrate a ‘special’ about dinosaurs of prehistoric Berkshire being washed up in canals.
They stuck the bloody skull and the shattered aft of the Kintbury Kanute in the renovated Newbury Museum. Crowds started to flock from all over West Berkshire to see them, promoting the damn place to the number one Trip Adviser attraction in Newbury.
I didn’t leave my ex-museum for days. I couldn’t face the people wanting to see the skull, queuing past my front door. I lay in the dark with a towel over my head and thought that the only way things could get any worse was if I was visited by an austere man from the Natural History Museum serving a writ for the return of a complete a diplodocus and a furious short bearded guy thrusting an envelope of rotten chicken bones at my chest demanding an explanation.
A minute later, there was a loud knock at the door…